Friday, December 16, 2016

Schumer plays it safe on Russia

Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is playing it safe on how to handle a congressional investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election.
Retiring Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has warned the GOP-controlled Intelligence Committee is likely to bury the issue and is among a growing number of Senate Democrats calling for the creation of a special committee to handle the matter. But Schumer has yet to endorse the idea.
It’s the latest sign that Schumer will bring a different leadership style to the Democratic caucus next year than Reid, a former boxer who rarely shied away from fights with the GOP.
“Schumer’s all about bipartisanship,” said a senior Democratic aide who questioned whether letting the traditionally secretive Senate Intelligence Committee take the lead on Russia would yield results.
But there’s logic to Schumer’s approach, the aide added, since a partisan spat over an independent commission could poison the well for investigating the hacking at all.
A bipartisan investigation of Russia’s action would have more legitimacy and would be tougher for President-elect Donald Trump to criticize as a witch-hunt.
Schumer has called for a bipartisan, wide-ranging investigation that would have access to all the relevant intelligence. He also wants the findings to be made public.
But he has not signed onto the idea pushed by senior Democrats, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the outgoing senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Ben. Cardin (Md.), the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, who want a special commission in the mold of the one that investigated the 9/11 attacks.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also endorsed a special commission, calling it a necessary step given ‘"Russia’s efforts to undermine our elections and democratic institutions."
She has endorsed legislation sponsored by two House Democrats, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking minority member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), that would create the special panel.
The debate over an investigation was sparked by a CIA assessment that reportedly found Russian hackers tried to help Trump win the election. They did so, intelligence analysts believe, by leaking documents that hurt Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign while holding back information stolen from the GOP.
NBC News reported Thursday that U.S. intelligence officials believe with a high level of confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the effort.
Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, who delivered daily intelligence briefings to President George W. Bush, has called Russia’s meddling “the political equivalent of 9/11.”
Schumer’s agnosticism on the question of an independent panel doesn’t sit well with some liberal advocacy and government-watchdog groups.
“As we’ve seen with other committees of [regular] standing committees doing investigations, those committees can sometimes sit on reports, sit on information and never release information to the public,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, a non-partisan government watchdog group.
He noted that after the Senate Intelligence Committee conducted a five-and-a-half-year investigation of CIA interrogations programs, the panel released only the 500-page executive summary. Nearly 7,000 pages of the report backing up the summary were left classified.
“While certainly having a standing committee do an investigation is better than nothing, having a select committee with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on it would be ideal,” he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), an outspoken critic of Putin, called for a select committee Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday, however, rejected the idea. He agrees there should be a probe but says the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), one of his close allies, should conduct it.
The risk for Schumer is that if he joins Pelosi, Reid and other Democrats in demanding an independent commission, Senate Republicans may balk and accuse them him of trying to turn the investigation into a political circus. Loss of Republican support could paralyze the review.
Reid told The Huffington Post this week that putting the Senate Intelligence Committee in charge of the investigation is McConnell’s strategy for burying it.
“Having been around here a long time, if you want to slow something down, turn it over to the committees,” he said. “I think my Democratic colleagues, after the first of the year, if they see they are getting stalled on this, may want to have a special prosecutor or at least a select committee.”
Some Democratic aides say Reid’s skepticism is well founded.
“Reid is completely right. My first reaction when I saw that McConnell doesn’t want a special commission is that this is his strategy for supporting something that never sees the light of day,” said a Democratic aide. “Given the way the Senate Intelligence Committee has operated, there’s not a lot of indication that they would be itching to do a big public report.”
Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of Democracy 21, a non-profit, non-partisan government watchdog group, says he’s concerned by the Intelligence Committee’s penchant for secrecy.
“We do join in supporting a special committee to investigate here,” he told The Hill. “We are concerned about the investigation being focused on the Intelligence Committee whose history shows a priority focus on keeping most of an investigation secret and bitter partisan divisions exacerbated by the secrecy.”
Several other Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee in recent days have demanded the creation of an independent commission.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) expressed his support for the proposal on Twitter and retiring Sen. Babara Boxer (D-Calif.) told The Hill in a statement, “I like the idea of special committee made up of various committees such as Homeland Security, Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Defense.”
She said appointing to the panel the senior members of committees with jurisdiction over international relations and national security would be a smart idea.
Some liberal activists want to see Schumer stand with Pelosi and take a harder line with Republicans on the need for an independent commission.
“This is a 9/11-style assault on American democracy. It requires a 9/11 style response from Congress,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group.
“Democrats need to be strong on the call for an independent-style commission,” he added. “The intrusion that Russia has clearly had on this past election is historic in American democracy. It requires a historically strong response.
“This is not something that can be done in the backroom of a committee with a couple members of Congress that might have an interest in burying the details of this report,” he added.
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